Now that it's winter, my alarm is set for 4:30 in the morning. I get up, check the house and go to the cellar to give the furnace another charge of logs. That way we get up to a warm house, without the oil burner coming on. It probably sounds like a nuisance to most people, but it suits me.
I usually sleep better after waking up in the middle of the night. But tonight, instead of falling happily back into bed, I go into the kitchen and turn on the kettle to make a cup of coffee. I'm not sleepy at all. Instead, I'm in the mood to sit and doodle sentences in my notebook. To each his own, as they used to say, and a fresh page can be inviting at any hour. Where to begin? Well, yesterday . . .
We have been splitting some dead hickory logs. Some of the pieces are getting punky and have been bored through by insects. At the end of the tunnels are fat white grubs. My helper has been picking them out carefully to feed to his new fish, which has a voracious appetite. Last week, the fish, which is large enough to be a keeper if we pulled it out of the creek, ate a dollar's worth of feed fish. You can provision a calf on less than that.
Bugs are fascinating to kids. In the 1940s, my father occasionally pulled baby-sitting detail while he was building the house we were raised in. I can remember him taking an empty beer bottle and dropping in a spider, a fly and a wasp and directing me to see which creature would become inebriated first as it waded in the beer residue.
After an interval, I discovered that the wasp was on its back, wiggling its legs. "I thought so," my father said, nailing in a header over the doorway that was to become the entrance to our bedroom.
My father was no stranger to the night. He was a member of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, an obscure religious group that met periodically in a downtown church to pray in the middle of the night. When he got home from the city, it would be time to milk the cow and get the family moving.
I think of him often at night, trying to piece together what his life was like and see him from a man's perspective. He was ever the individual, a thinker who relished curious experiments.
He loved figs and wanted to see if he could grow them in Western New York. He planted a fig tree behind the house and would bury it in straw for the winter. Somehow the tree survived to produce fruit which looked like green light bulbs. These he would attempt to ripen indoors.
My mother, however, proved to be as interesting an obstacle as the climate, for she did not endorse the project because the figs attracted fruit flies. She would throw out the figs when she found them. Once, he concealed them inside a guitar until they were almost ready to sample, but the bugs gave away the hiding place. "Well, almost," he must have said, contemplating some new adventure.
I went over Saturday to help out at the new 4-H beef barn. If winter had fulfilled its role, the job would have been easier; as it was, the work site was a lake of sticky red-horse clay. The soil held our boots like an immense, gooey piece of flypaper. Walking was comical -- our feet collected large globs of mud as we carried heavy poles and bags of concrete mix. We slopped around bowlegged and laughing as we set timbers for one side of the building.
Want a memorable lunch? Stand out of the wind, spooning in bowls of spicy chili and drinking strong coffee with a bunch of good-natured, muddy guys. It was a pleasant day despite the footing.
How did I find myself recently walking along an icy road a mile from home at midnight? We had been ice skating in Niagara Falls and had driven home through the freezing rain, so intent on staying on the road that we didn't notice the fuel gauge was reading "E."
E, unfortunately, did not mean "enough," and the vehicle stalled. I decided to walk the rest of the way home and bring back a car. It was slippery going, and as dark as it gets, but it doesn't take that long to walk a mile, I told myself.
Going past a house, I heard a clank, the unmistakable sound of the door closing on an outdoor wood furnace. In the dim illumination of a yard light, I made out the shape of a man. I called out my name and predicament and was soon being driven back with a gas can containing two gallons. The car started. Then the formalities: "What do we owe you?" "Naw, nothin'." As always, people are happy to help.
I look out the window for a hint of dawn in the sky to the east above the trees. Not yet. I turn a page in the journal and sketch a would-be sunrise -- treetops silhouetted by a fat, young sun. Not bad, but add some color? There should be some broken crayons in the junk drawer. I'm in luck -- stubs of red, orange and purple. I streak in the colors of dawn, realizing I haven't colored a picture since grade school, and it's fun. Dad would have liked it.